There are a few things you notice these days when you watch a movie based on sports. The first is that, unlike the old days, there are organizations in Hollywood who understand sports and help to make sure that the movie is realistic. Remember the Titans, Radio, and Hoosiers, are three examples where clearly, the action, the uniforms, and the athletes and coaches all are very authentic- the parents are usually over the top though- which is not unlike reality either! In all of these stories, there is the coach, or more frequently, the new coach, who finds himself in a meeting with either the parents, or the fans down at the firehouse or Mom’s Restaurant, or some archetypal location where the “Good Ole Boys” meet to chew the fat and second- guess the coach.
Generally, coaches who take over a program that has not experienced success in the past, or where the program is just beginning will have a much easier time than the coach who takes over a program with a winning tradition and lots of ex-players living and working in the community. In many places in America, what goes on with the local high school team is far more important to people than what is happening in the Professional Leagues or the Division One Colleges. A former Athletic Director at my school in upstate Pennsylvania in the middle of the anthracite coal country was scheduled to officiate the annual rivalry between two highly respected teams. An illness in the family caused him to have to cancel on a Wednesday before the Friday night game. Several “friends” called and told the athletic director that this was definitely going to affect the betting line in all of the bars for the big game- they begged him to reconsider because he “understood” their style of play and would not ruin the game with too many penalties.
For a coach who is new to a successful program, we strongly suggest that you invest $5 and purchase The Prince by Machiavelli. Written in the 16th Century and pretty much mandatory reading by all statesmen, politicians, generals, captains of industry, school superintendents, and yes, coaches, it is 110 pages long and filled with scenarios that will make you realize that to be an effective leader, one must have more than rugged good looks and a loud voice. Consider the following 6 cautionary and instructive strategies from the master himself. We will provide the quotation, then we will give the lesson in a contemporary setting.
1. On Being Proactive
“And so it is with state (TEAM) affairs. For the distempers of a state (TEAM) being discovered while yet inchoate, which can only be done by a sagacious ruler(COACH), may easily be dealt with; but when, from not being observed, they are suffered to grow until they are obvious to everyone, there is no longer any remedy. The Romans, therefore, foreseeing evils while they were yet far off, always provided against them, and never suffered them to take their course for the sake of avoiding war; since they knew that war is not so to be avoided, but is only postponed to the advantage of the other side.”
So, Mr. New Coach, you perceive one day that an assistant coach who also applied for your job is moving a little slow when you speak, or not appearing to be as “on board” with the program as some others seem to be- nothing big mind you- just a hunch you have. Perhaps it has gotten back to you that this staff member has been “bad mouthing the program behind the scenes. Take another look at the Master’s advice… Does he say to sit down with that person and logically discuss the matter with him or her? Does he say to have patience and try to “work” with that person? No, he advises that, while the problem is yet barely noticeable, or “yet far off”, you take the appropriate steps to, as the Romans did, not let them “take their course” to avoid conflict- because conflict cannot be avoided, only put off, and the delay works to the advantage of the other side. Dismiss the individual quickly and with little fanfare. If you wait till later, your boss might treat it like a false equivalency and tell “both of you to sit down and work this out like gentlemen.” You are the Head Coach. Make the change and move on! If your doctor found a tumor in the early stages would you tell him to keep it in for a while?!
2. Being a Change Agent
“And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”
Wow- and you thought that the people in town would just love you because you are so sincere and such a nice guy. HMMM, now what? You need some friends- important ones at that. The world’s hardest job is to introduce changes- remember Gene Hackman in Hoosiers- What, you are changing the defense? Or in football… Don’t you know how we play it here? Our tradition is “smash-mouth,” grind-it-out, football, not the “Chuck and Duck with all those scared-to-be hit wide receivers running around!
When Dick Vermeil became coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he immediately asked “Concrete Charlie” Chuck Bednarik- a “God” in the Philadelphia Pantheon of sport heroes- to be an on the field coach of the team with no precise job description. Coach Vermeil simply said, “He’s on the staff, because I want him right next to me when the street fight starts!”There’s never a real “street fight” in an NFL Game- OK maybe in the Philadelphia grandstand- but that kind of talk- also employed by Buddy Ryan when he coached the Eagles works very effectively with Philadelphia Fans- and Dick, as well as Buddy, knew it. Know your community. Coach Vermeil was a student of small town public relations. He conducted several tryouts of local wannabees in his first year which led to the addition of the hustling, non-college football player “Philly Boy” Vince Papale to the roster. (See the recent movie with Mark Wahlberg- “Invincible”) Later in the book, Machiavelli speaks to the value of a “few signal examples” by a leader to get the message across. To Philadelphia fans, golden- haired California born and raised Dick Vermeil is a native son- no other coach of any other sport to this day, has their picture on a billboard in Philadelphia. Dick still does- 25+ years after he retired from the Eagles. You might not be a Dick Vermeil, but at your awards banquet, can you have an old retired famous coach or player speak? Can you name an annual award after a famous person in the program from yesteryear? If the sport is basketball, can you name the annual Xmas Tournament after the famous coach that everyone still talks about in hallowed terms? How about having the old coach talk to the troops before the big game like Dick Vermeil did with Chuck Bednarik? You neglect this at your peril, Mr. New Coach.
3. Should you be Loved or Feared?
“And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared rather than loved…Moreover, men are less careful how they offend him who makes himself loved than him who makes himself feared. For love is held by the tie of obligation, which, because men are a sorry breed, is broken on every whisper of private interest; but fear is bound by the apprehension of punishment which never relaxes its grasp.”
Should you be loved, or feared? Well, don’t go too heavy on the “feared” till you win some games, but, as Machiavelli asserts, it would be nice to be both, but if you can only be one of the two, “feared” might be the better choice. If you look closely at the quotation, you can see a part of the issue that is seldom talked about but may be equally important to the apparent main issue of whether to be feared or loved. Here is the problem… Even your faithful assistants will be less careful about deadlines, being on time for meetings, or generally pleasing you for example. Why? Because if they miss a deadline, you won’t be upset. Ever hear someone say, “If I’m late my wife will kill me”? Nobody really gets killed, but everyone fears the grief that comes from not following an assertive person’s expectations. However, you will always give another chance. You will always say, “Ahh, don’t worry about it- just get it to me as soon as you can.” So, those who work for you and even like you will never be worried. When the day comes that you lose it because people are late for a meeting, they will be puzzled at this volcanic reaction of yours.
Former NFL Coach Bum Phillips used to tell a story from when he was on the staff of Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. The entire staff would be seated at the table well in advance of the stated time for the meeting to start. The coaches would all be chatting about a variety of things. Then Coach Bryant would walk in. Everybody sat up straight and stopped talking. Coach Bryant would smoke an entire cigarette in dead silence with nobody breathing a word till he finally said something. We know, you don’t want to be like that- most people do not. However, even your loyal supporters will have a higher sense of urgency about pleasing you if you aren’t such a pushover. Think about it. Practice your mean face in the mirror! Occasionally, show a few “signal examples” about how you could be if you really did get upset. People will be more attentive. General Norman Swartzkopf, of Desert Storm Fame, remarked once about how surprised he was that people were laughing so much at his jokes after he had 3 stars on his collar. The General did not hesitate, we are told, to let people know what he was capable of every now and then. That will keep them laughing when you tell a joke Coach!
4. Be Open to Advice and Suggestions- on Your Schedule
“For there is no way to guard against flattery but by letting it be seen that you take no offense in hearing the truth: but when everyone is free to tell you the truth, respect falls short. Wherefore a prudent Prince (COACH) should follow a middle course, by choosing certain discreet individuals from among his subjects, and allowing them alone free leave to speak their minds on any matter on which he asks their opinion, and on none other. But he ought to ask their opinion on everything, and after hearing what they have to say, should reflect and judge for himself. And with these counselors collectively, and with each of them separately, his bearing should be such, that each and all of them may know that the more freely they declare their thoughts the better they will be liked…A Prince, therefore ought to take counsel, but at such times and seasons only as he himself pleases, and not when it pleases others…he should discourage everyone from obtruding advice on matters which it is not sought…”
Some leaders, such as George W. Bush, we have read, did not like to be told what was really going on, choosing instead to find their own reality more satisfying. As a leader you should make it clear to subordinates that you expect them to tell you the truth when it comes to reporting what is really going on. However, the often made mistake is when the leader states that “His or her door is always open” so as to hear anything about anything at any time. Notice what Machiavelli urges of you head coaches… 1) You must guard against flattery, 2) You wish to be told the truth. However, NOT everyone’s opinion is being sought at all times, and the only opinions being sought are the ones the boss asks about. Thus, the door is NOT ALWAYS OPEN! Its open as to opinions when you ask a selected person his or her opinion and at no other time. So always be ready to hear the truth, but not when it pleases someone else to tell it to you, only when you ask a person for it. This is not a democracy! Also, bear in mind that, unless otherwise stated by the head coach, when we “go around the table asking opinions” we are not taking a vote. As Lincoln was supposed to have stated to his cabinet one day, “Thank you all for your opinions, I will now make a decision on the matter.” Again we state- It’s not a democracy- you are the boss.
We wish you luck coach- did you schedule your pre-season parent meeting yet? How about your Wednesday night mandatory study time in the library so the message gets out that you are concerned with scholarly things first!? Do you know any of the Greats from yesteryear yet? Go visit them- today! Ask their opinion on good ways to motivate players. Be interested in their “war stories.” Let the boosters do the fund raisers, not you. Finally, remember that its not just about X’s and O’s- all of us who have coached are undefeated- on the blackboard!
5. Don’t Be Indecisive
“A Prince (Coach) is despised when he is seen to be fickle, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous, or irresolute, against which defects he ought therefore to guard, striving so as to bear himself that greatness, courage, wisdom, and strength may appear in all his actions.”
So, when a decision is reached, there can be no agonizing about whether it was the right decision, but everyone must work hard to make that decision be the right one. Nothing is worse than appearing indecisive, and not to decide is to decide. Note that Machiavelli states that a wishy-washy individual will not just be disliked, but DESPISED.
6. Practice Effective Public Relation Strategies
He (The Coach) ought, moreover, at suitable seasons of the year to entertain the people with festivals and shows. And because all cities (schools too) are divided into guilds and companies (church groups, youth organizations, school co-curricular activities) he should show attention to these societies, and sometimes take part in their meetings; offering an example of courtesy and munificence, but always maintaining the dignity of his station, which must under no circumstance be compromised.
Coach… stated simply, do you attend the games of other teams, attend the Spring Concert, attend the school dramatic production, walk into the chess club one day and play somebody, volunteer (along with your players) at the Special Olympics, show up at other athletic events for kids in the community, and generally allow yourself to be seen in a lot of other things besides your sport? If you don’t, you won’t have a lot of friends storming the castle of the board room on the night they are discussing whether to renew your contract! Sinclair Lewis, one of the greatest American fiction writers of the early 20th Century wrote a book in the mid 1930′s that would be very timely in today’s Zeitgeist entitled, It Can’t Happen Here. It suggests the possibility of revolution and a totalitarian takeover of the United States. One of the characters is a candidate for President with a very successful election strategy. He would show up at the bottom of coal mines, atop high building being constructed and in National Parks in remote places on the thinking that people would be impressed and say, If he’s coming here, this guy must be going everywhere…” Take some time out to show up in places that people would not expect you to show up- the custodian’s office to leave him a bottle of wine at Christmas for example, or in the back where the cafeteria ladies work to give them a corsage around Easter time.